Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Weaned Child (sermon for the ninth Sunday after the Epiphany)

Edna Shackleford, one of our oldest members, has reached that blessed stage in life when she vividly remembers details from her earliest childhood, even as more recent memory comes a little harder. She was telling me yesterday that she now knows, from her adult perspective, how little her family actually had when she was a small child. And yet she marvels at how well-off she felt, how abundant everything seemed to her then. She said she felt like royalty, always having more than she needed.

And while Edna certainly felt spoiled, just overwhelmed with the abundance in her life, she remembers at the same time that her parents were very strict, and how unquestioningly she obeyed them. Even though they never denied her any material thing she could have imagined wanting or needing, she could not have imagined ever defying them.

Though my history was very different than Edna's, I can identify with her memories. For what seemed like a lot of my early childhood, my mother worked all day and went to school at night, so I really rarely saw her. She couldn't afford a babysitter, so she taught me to be a latch-key kid. She'd give me detailed instructions, made me memorize the telephone numbers of the places she had to be all day, taught me how to cook TV dinners for myself, and gave me my list of chores to do.

At no time did I ever wonder if I would have enough to eat or a place to live or clothes to wear. I had absolutely no concerns about that. Of course, I saw things on TV and in the store that I wanted that Mom denied me, and I carried on about those things, but of course I can't remember any of them now. I knew on some level they weren't real needs, that Mom, after all, was right about them.

My point is that I never, ever worried about my safety or my health or basic well-being. I knew Mom would take care of me. It wasn't even a question.

At the same time, however, when she gave me my chore list, it never occurred to me that I might have simply said "No," or even that she had no way of knowing whether I'd done them or I hadn't. I didn't like doing most of them. I often felt that they were beyond my capability. I often muttered and sputtered the whole time I was doing them. But I did them, and I did them without question.

The short psalm we have this morning is thought by many to be the one psalm in the Old Testament that was likely written by a woman, and a mother at that. The mother sees that the kind of trust and willing obedience her weaned child has for her is an excellent metaphor for a right relationship with God. She would like to be to God as her child is to her.

The scriptures often compare the creation to a household, with God imagined as the householder. Within the household, humankind is pictured as having the role of steward. God is the source of all that we have and enjoy. We are meant to care for it and nurture it and leave it better than we found it. The problem of sin is rooted precisely in our suspicion that God the householder is not fair and will not distribute the resources to all of us equally. The problem of sin is the problem of fearing that there will not be enough.

But the truth is that God provides enough for everyone, without any of us lifting a finger. If we convince ourselves there isn't enough, we will forget God and in panic go grabbing for everything we can get. In so doing, we take over work that is properly God's, we lift our eyes higher than we should, we concern ourselves with things that we don't understand.

And indeed, this is precisely how we fulfill our own prophecy; in grabbing more than our share, we ensure that there is not enough for everyone. This is an unsustainable path and it will eventually lead to disaster. Indeed, it already has, again and again and again. God's judgment is naturally woven into our choices. If we choose to trust God and share willingly, things work out well. If we choose to be afraid and grab and hoard and fight, things devolve into chaos.

The problem then that is presented to all of us who seek to serve the living God is, how do we behave in a world that is always more or less insane, a world that nevertheless believes its insanity is perfectly sane? How do we live in a world of people who really are living in a near panic all the time? How do we stay faithful in a world full of people battling constantly for more than their share?

Jesus deepens the image of the divine household by characterizing God as the parent and God's people as God's children. We are not poorly-paid servants burdened by our stern boss with an unpleasant job; we are loving and devoted children, blessed with abundance, who want more than anything else in the world to please their loving parent.

Jesus says, "today has troubles enough of its own." Jesus is not teaching us to be worry-free. He himself will worry pretty deeply about his mission to die on the cross. He will worry pretty deeply about the well-being of his disciples. He's will be sorely troubled about their unity and their faithfulness. He's not teaching us to stop worrying. He's teaching us to stop worrying about God's job and start worrying about ours.

Seeking the realm of God, working for reconciliation between God and people and between people and people, working to end violence and to care for those who are being deprived by the greedy, ministering to the sick and the imprisoned and the outcast, oh, yes, today has troubles enough of it's own.

The mission God has given us is the chore list for God's household, our living world, and it opens the way for humankind to persist in the living world for many generations to come. God is saving this crazy world, and using God's people to do it. In Christ he is saying, "Stop trying to do my job and start doing yours."

God works in and through the whole of the living creation, in and through every lily and every sparrow, sometimes bringing blessings and sometimes bringing judgment, sometimes pruning away at life and sometimes letting it grow wildly. This is a God like a perfect parent, who really does know what is best not just for us but for all of life, and really has a good idea about how we might stay here, not just us, but our children and our children's children.

Like the weaned child who carries out his household chores, trusting his parent to provide all that is needful, Jesus offered good for evil, love for hate, generosity for greed, trusting God would ultimately protect and vindicate him. And God did. Though they crucified and buried Jesus in a tomb, God raised him from the dead.

Jesus teaches us to become as he was and is, the weaned children of a divine parent, letting go of our mad anxiety-driven dash to get all we can grab, and embracing our simple household chores: reconciliation, humility and generosity.

And we will be all right.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Life in Your Ways (sermon for the seventh Sunday after the Epiphany)

Mom brought home a monkey.

Back in the early sixties, after she was divorced and had moved us in with her parents in Maryland, my mother got a job in veterinary clinic that doubled as a pet shop. Mom always had a soft spot for animals. Well, there was this wooly monkey named Gus who just wasn't attracting customers and the owners had pretty much decided to put it to sleep. Mom couldn't deal with that so she brought it home.

My grandmother Almedia was horrified. People in our little neighborhood didn't have monkeys for pets. They had dogs. They had cats. They might have a bird. But they didn't have monkeys. She pulled all the curtains and watched that monkey every minute.

The monkey was extremely well-behaved, one of the best types for pets, litter-trained and everything. But when it climbed up the picture window curtains and pulled them back with its little black hand and looked out into the neighborhood, that was the end of Gus. He had to go back.

It just wasn't normal.

After the terrible ordeal of World War II, most everyone just wanted to get back to normal. But this getting back to normal went to some real extremes. It became the byword of a whole generation. Leave It to Beaver is a great example of what the country wanted to be at that time. You just couldn't be odd. Having a monkey as a pet was odd. Odd was---well, bad.

This has led us to compare our time to the golden era of the late forties and early fifties. We remember, rather selectively I think, a time when everyone was polite, white, lived in the suburbs, drove a new car, had one income from dad, a stay-at-home mom, and two blonde kids whose biggest problem was whether or not to tell the truth about breaking the neighbor's window with a baseball. We told ourselves this was the way the world had always been, except for that--well you know--that war that killed millions of people.

Today, people are neither white nor polite, they don't have new cars, they have to have two incomes because many jobs can't support even one person, much less four, mom and dad aren't married, their kids are from multiple partners, and the problems their kids have include gun violence and drug dealers. What has happened? The world is going to hell in a hand basket!

And the churches are having the same kind of issue. After the effortless explosion of churches in the late forties and fifties as a part of the great national passion for normalcy. the decline of mainline denominations since the sixties seems like a terrible loss. Lots of people think Americans have always been in church. But this is not so. There have been many times in American history when hardly anybody was in church. We're still a pretty religious country comparatively speaking, but it's more accurate to say that we are simply returning to---well, normal.

A lot of us grew up with the idea that history was a progression of bad to good, a march into a bright future, but the reality is that, while times certainly change, the amounts of good and bad stuff going on really don't. They just move around. This is really what is normal. What's normal is that certain people get on top for a time and they see the world through rose-colored glasses while all the people on the lower rungs see it as a hard and difficult place. SSDD. Same stuff different day. All very normal.

Indeed, there have been some pretty significant studies of happiness and discontent over the last few decades and interestingly enough, as far as we can tell, no matter how far we advance technologically and no matter how much wealthier we become, we don't actually get a bit happier. Everyone's just about as happy as they ever were, and just about as unhappy. SNAFU, as the soldiers used to say. Situation normal, all messed up.

But... God is odd.

(I'm stealing a bit here. Some say Dorothy Parker, one of my favorite writers, penned the famous poem,

How odd of God
To choose the Jews

Though others attribute it to other poets...)

One of the preachers I've been reading this week said that when you're singing "Holy Holy Holy," you might just as well be singing is "Odd, Odd, Odd." Holy means utterly different, utterly separate, utterly unique, so "odd" kind of gets it.

God is odd. And if we substituted this word "odd" for the word "holy" we would have the command: "You shall be odd, as the LORD your God is odd."

God is odd like a family with a monkey in a neighborhood of dog-owners. God is odd like The Addams Family in a Leave It to Beaver neighborhood.

It's perfectly normal for the world to have a handful of haves and whole boatload of have-nots. But God's realm is about sharing God's gifts so that everyone has enough. God is odd.

The world is governed by an "only-the-strong-survive" ethos. This is perfectly normal. But the realm of God is governed by a "last-will-come-first" ethos. God is odd.

It is normal to love people who love you, and people you know. In the realm of God, people are to love people who hate them, and to see aliens as their neighbors. God is odd.

It is normal for nations to defend their interests with a form of mass murder called warfare. This is normal. But in God's odd realm, the command is "turn the other cheek." God is odd.

It is normal in business to take advantage of those who are in need for selfish gain. Perfectly appropriate, even moral. But not in God's realm. In God's realm, the point of business is the well-being of the whole social order, employer, employee and customer.

The people of God are called to be odd, as God is odd. So when the psalmist prays "give me life in your ways," he is asking to be made as odd as God.

When we let the monkey move into the house, when we embrace the oddness of God, we become odd ourselves. While the normalcy of our globe will take different shapes and forms depending on what nation happens to be on top, who happens to have all the marbles, and who is going to war with whom, God will always be odd, forever and ever, amen, and so will all those who seek life in God's ways.

You all know that I often criticize the health-and-wealth gospel that is so popular these days. The idea that the whole point of the gospel is my prosperity and well-being is so obviously wrong, so completely at odds with the scripture that it rather amazes me that so many intelligent and well-meaning people are buying into it. But it really shouldn't amaze me. It is such a worldly idea, so perfectly normal, really, the idea that my interests and God's interests are simply the same. That makes a lot more sense than God being odd. It seems genuinely wise and deep and profound. Whereas the idea that God is odd seems absurd and even foolish.

Nevertheless, God does promise a kind of prosperity and well-being to those who seek God's oddness. It's not the normal kind though, because nothing about God is normal. It's an odd kind of prosperity, an odd kind of health, the kind that hangs on a cross and suffers for others, the kind that lives forever. Odd, odd, odd.

If you went out of here and started telling your neighbors how you were going to love your enemies and help strangers you will never even meet they would probably nod and smile in that way people do toward people who are developmentally disabled. If you keep at it, they might actually get mad at you. If you really make a lot of noise about it, they might even find a way to tear you down, discredit you. And if you really wouldn't shut up, you might find yourself in real danger.

Whereas if you told them about how God was fighting on our side against the infidels and would give us the victory over our adversaries, and if you told them that you were going to help that old lady down the street that everyone loves, and if you proclaimed that everyone was on their own, to sink or swim, well, then they'd probably warm right up to you. You would be normal. Perfectly normal. They know wisdom when they hear it. Their mommas didn't raise no fools.

I'm grateful mine brought home a monkey.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Blameless (sermon for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany)

Isn't it wonderful that the news media is finally covering something that matters? Isn't it wonderful that we are watching a story that inspires and ennobles us rather than terrifying and enraging us? And it seems that all the sources are pointing out many of the same things. One of these is the encouraging presentation of millions of Arabs demonstrating peacefully and thereby bringing about a new regime. This is in stark contrast to the portrayal of Arabs as a murderous, violent lot that might best be wiped off the face of the earth.

But what strikes me most about this amazing story is the power of groups of people. Great power, glorious power, wonder-working power. And of course, horrifying power, destructive power, world-destroying power.

The power of groups is great, and it's more or less the power of their combined numbers. No tyranny can survive without the submission of a great number of people to that tyranny. No great evil can be done without the collusion of large numbers of people. And no great good can be accomplished, no matter how impressive the leaders, without followers in numbers.

In fact, historians in the last century or so have been moving away from looking at history as the story of great individuals and toward history being about groups of people, who together call forth and shape great individuals. I think about Jesus this way, and honestly, I think the collection of scriptures we use are a great example of exactly this process. Thousands of people made Jesus who he was, and millions of people make him who he is today. Jesus was called forth by a great mass of people over the course of many generations, and Jesus continues to be called forth by the millions who call on his name today. Jesus is not simply a person. Jesus the individual is in reality lost to history, but Jesus the movement, a movement he himself called the reign of God, can never die.

One of the great struggles I think we all have with the scriptures we have heard this morning is how impossibly demanding they are, and I think the key to understanding them is in this principle. In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a saying, "I get drunk, be we stay sober." Translating to the church, we might say, "I sin, but we are blameless."

Now there are two crucial levels I am talking about today. The first is that my salvation is dependent on my connection to a saved community. The second is that a community is saved or condemned not on the basis of what it does, but on what it wants.

The blamelessness, or sinlessness, or holiness of the church is not, thank God, dependent on my blamelessness or sinlessness or holiness. If it were it would be out of luck. Nor is my own blamelessness or holiness even dependent on me. As one of our elders asked yesterday, "What can one person do?" Really? Nothing.

The same, oddly enough, is true of condemnation. My condemnation, what is really wrong with me, is not really about me. It is about the we that works together against what is best for all of life on earth. What evil can one person really do? Certainly it seems that one might do a great deal of damage. But compared to the kinds of evil that really makes a difference to the whole world? Not much.

But the second important fact about both sin and holiness is that neither has as much to do with what we do together as it does with what we want together.

In other words, the world is saved or damned not by individuals, but by groups, and moreover, the world is saved or damned not by what these groups do, but by what they want.

Paul says today that the Corinthians cannot have advanced to spiritual maturity because they are too busy wrangling and arguing and being divisive. His point is that if they had advanced to spiritual maturity, they would be of the same mind, that is, the mind of Christ, which is one mind, at peace. They would want what God wants, and would therefore be working together so that God's will might be done on earth as it is in heaven. They claim to be struggling over issue of truth, but Paul sees in their actions the issue only of their desires. It's not what they are doing that's the problem. It's what they are wanting.

Paul loves the Corinthian church and believes in them, but he is making it clear that they are off the track, badly off the track. Faith is about wanting what God wants, and it's obvious from their actions that they are more concerned their preferences and opinions than they are with God's. Paul is making it clear that acting in concert has no meaning if the congregation is not also wanting in concert.

The congregation, the church, the people of God, are perfect to the extent that they are of one mind in Jesus Christ, however imperfect all the individuals may be. In this is my salvation.

The Old Testament, in a bit more subtle way admittedly, addresses the same issue in multitudinous ways. The kings of Israel, in a literary sense, represented the people of Israel, What made David a great king, and therefore made Israel a great nation, was not his brilliant military strategy or his good looks or his talent as a public speaker. What made him a great king was that he passionately wanted God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. And his failure had nothing to do with being a lousy leader. It had to do with allowing his own wants to become more important to him than the will of God.

What we want must be in concert, but what we want must be what God wants. Our salvation depends on our unity not only with each other, but with God.

The salvation of the world is not in doing the right thing, it's in wanting the right thing. This is the true distinction between works and faith. To do something that outwardly looks righteous, but which is inwardly motivated by selfishness or greed or a desire to dominate or control, is to become simply a part of the great waste that is sin and death.

The Greek word translated "hell" Jesus uses in today's passage is actually Gehenna, which was not an otherworldly, cosmic place, but a huge, perpetually burning garbage dump everyone Jesus was talking to knew about. Jesus was using extremely vivid language to talk about just how crucial it is to the reign of God for God's people not merely to do what God wants, but to want what God wants. Jesus is saying that the group that does what God wants but that doesn't actually want what God wants is a tragic waste, best thrown into the burn pile.

When a group of people want to control and dominate another group of people, they hide their evil under what appear to be good intentions. "We enslave you in order to civilize you. We throw you in prison to rehabilitate you. We point weapons of mass destruction at you in the name of peace. We oppress one class so the other classes can have a better life. We murder one of you for the sake of the rest of you."

There are plenty of groups out there that I can become a part of that will help me seek my selfish desires, will reward my deceit and will honor my cowardice with violent protection. I can become a part of a "we" that dominates and controls and exploits and violates, and which hides it all behind noble words and claims to the moral high ground.

But there is also the church, and all other groups of people that band together around what is truly best for humankind, and all living things, in honesty and courage. The scriptures frequently speak of foreigners and other groups that manifest the desire of God just as faithfully or more so than do the people God called. There is a single good that we can all want; that's the heart of true monotheism, and not exclusivism. The Egyptian people are an example of this kind of unity with each other and with God, the kind of power that saves the world.

I am a sinner, full of selfishness and deceit and cowardice, but we are the sinless body of Christ. I am a mortal doomed to die and pass from history forever. But we are the eternally living body of Christ. I want what I want, we want what God wants. I am lost and condemned, we are found and redeemed. I fumble in the dark, but we walk in the light.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Light in the Darkness (sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany)

Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he was taken from his home to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He asked one man there why he prayed and the man replied, "I pray to the God within me that I will be given the strength to ask God the right questions."

We are part of a denomination that celebrates questions. We approve of them, we encourage them, we hope that our members think for themselves. This is an approach to the mission of sharing the gospel in the world, our approach, and the hope that is in it is not that everyone will think differently, but that everyone will come to the obedience of faith through their own authentic journey.

But the story from the prison camp is instructive. There are questions and then there are questions. Some questions are really about avoiding full commitment. We know if we ask certain unanswerable questions, we then have an excuse for holding back. "I would give myself entirely to discipleship, except I haven't gotten answers to the important questions yet."

Other questions are motivated by a desire to move closer to God, to deepen one's commitment, to have a greater understanding and appreciation of God's person and will. These, as Wiesel's fellow prisoner might say, are the right questions.

The great promise of the gospel is really serenity. The word "happy" we have in our psalm today is not the best translation. The Hebrew word translated "happy" might better be translated "serene." The psalm is about deep contentedness, freedom from anxiety, impartial graciousness. It is about the gift of God's Spirit to those who walk in God's ways. Impartial versus partial, whole versus incomplete, loving and gracious and generous to all without exception. This is God's nature, and God shares God's nature with those who walk in God's ways.

Many loving and spiritual people have a problem with the kind of biblical language that condemns. We like to think that God doesn't condemn anyone. We perhaps are thinking of the kind of bigoted Christian who assigned all those good people of other religions to hellfire. The scriptures, to my way of thinking, don't condemn such people. Nor, in the end, do they authorize our condemnation of anyone. They certainly do not authorize violence against anyone, including those whom the bible might declare wicked.

Elie Wiesel's fellow prisoner could have asked "Why do the Nazis prosper? Why do they have the victory?" But the God within him, the Spirit of God, knew that this was not the right question. He might have asked "How do I achieve victory over this powerful enemy?" But the God within him knew that was also the wrong question. Or he might have asked "How will you destroy these evil people?" Again, wrong question.

Certainly the Nazis are a good example of the kind of religion the bible condemns. False religion and evil from a biblical point of view has nothing to do with authentic alternative religions that lead people to loving and ethical lives. The bible regards as false religion and evil those religious and philosophical principles that lead people to oppress other people, to mistreat the planet, to execute people or to go to war. Now I know the Old Testament speaks of war and violence, but in the end, in understanding both Old and New Testaments, the final practice of those who seek the one living and true God is the practice of peace.

So there are persons whom God condemns, sad to say. There are persons God has no use for, as upsetting as that may be. Certainly, God does not expect, nor does he plan, for everyone on earth to become Christian; God is delighted by those who receive God's Spirit in whatever way they find it. But God does condemn the violent, the oppressive, the powerful ones who put on a show of religion but who do not seek justice for the powerless and who are not generous as God is generous. I don't believe God has in mind eternal torment for anyone. I do believe however that many of these useless lives simply snuff out and disappear, while the lives of those who are filled with God's Spirit never truly leave the living world.

God offers us a set of practices, religious and ethical, that in the end are not rational, not even very sensible. But these practices lead us to an openness to God's Spirit, and it's God's Spirit that is the light in the spiritual darkness of the world. Without God's Spirit, the scriptures will not finally make any sense. With it, they glow with holy light.

The fullness of human life, the completeness, the wholeness, and therefore true serenity, lies in the indwelling of God's Spirit. Without it, we are never at peace. Without it, we are not much use to God. Our lives are simply brief flickers that make almost no difference. The missing line in today's psalm has to do with the onlooking wicked person, who sees the one illumined by God's Spirit, was omitted, probably because of how disturbing it is:

The wicked will see it and be grieved;
         He will gnash his teeth and melt away;
         The desire of the wicked shall perish.

The translation of the Hebrew in the psalm in line four should read more like "there is a light in the darkness for the upright." This is the light of God's Spirit, God's personality, God's perspective. God's nature, God's Spirit, is like water that quenches thirst forever, or food that feeds once and for all. It is like light in a great darkness, and it is like salt in tasteless or bad tasting food.

We sometimes have good reason to get lost in our anxiety or grief. Wiesel's anonymous fellow prisoner certainly had reason to be deeply afraid, didn't he? Of course, our reasons for giving into anger or fear are often much, much less than his.

Nevertheless, there are often times when something truly is being taken from us, or something we need is being kept from us. These are real situations, situations when we are being hurt in one way or another. At such times, we are in profound danger of slipping into the eternal and meaningless nothingness, the spiritual darkness that encompasses much of humanity.

But we have the assurance that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it. Jesus invites us to accept a majestic and terribly demanding mantle, the mantle of the fullness of our humanity. We are to be a tiny and by most worldly measures an inconsequential light, a bit of crystalline spice, small things that are nevertheless remarkably powerful. And we are to have the courage of being whole despite the great darkness that demands that we cut off pieces of ourselves, that we live incomplete lives, blind, deaf, mute, lame. We are to be uncompromising in our obedience to God in the midst of a world that demands compromise. And we are to trust that the light cannot in the end be overcome, no matter what victories the darkness might seem to accomplish.

This is why Jesus teaches us not to hide God's light. He knows that the darkness will try to overcome it, and that we might in our fear therefore hide it away for safety. But we mustn't hide it. No matter how desperately the world wants to put it out, we mustn't hide it.

There's the story about the cave and the sun. The sun invited the cave to come up and see it's light, but the cave said, "All I see is darkness." But the sun invited the cave to come up again and finally the cave came up and saw the light of the sun. So then the cave said, "come down and see my darkness." But when the sun went down into the cave, the darkness was gone.